Christianity is on the verge of being obliterated in the UK. And there is no 'but' to this statement.
How bad is the outlook for Christianity in the UK? Quite frankly, the rise of Islam is a ‘dead cat’, a neat way for the churches’ leaders in England especially to avoid facing the truth: Christianity in England is, under their watch, about to become virtually extinct.
Why do I say this?
Well firstly the decline in people identifying as Christian in the 2011 census, which showed the level declining rapidly towards 50%.
“Between 2001 and 2011 there has been a decrease in people who identify as Christian (from 71.7 per cent to 59.3 per cent) and an increase in those reporting no religion (from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent). There were increases in the other main religious group categories, with the number of Muslims increasing the most (from 3.0 per cent to 4.8 per cent).”
This sounds alarming enough, but when you analyse just what that self-identification means it’s little more than a fig leaf for the implosion of Christianity in England. The British Humanist Association gives a neat, and I think compelling, way of breaking down what this means. And while I don’t subscribe the Humanism’s critique of Christianity, the enemy’s viewpoint is the best place to discover just how strong or weak you are.
“How religious the UK population appears to be depends upon the question that is asked, but broadly speaking there are four different ways of measuring religiosity: based on loose cultural affiliation; based on ‘belonging’ to a religion, or identifying as religious; based on believing in the core tenets of a particular religion; and based on levels of religious practice (whether self-reported or observed)...”
The census is basically just one of these; it doesn’t imply church belonging such as baptism, nor does it imply any profession of particular beliefs such as the resurrection or adoption of a belief system. So, while the census records 59% of the UK as Christian, the British Social Attitude’s Survey published in 2014 reported that only 41.7% identify as Christians, while the Church of England claimed its membership stood at 16.3% of the English population, down from 40.3% in 1983. As for beliefs, a 2013 YouGov survey found that 27% of the population believed that Jesus Christ was the son of God, 26% believed in the Biblical account of the crucifixion, 22% believe in the devil and 33% believe in life after death.
The institution of the church lies as a festering ruin. “A 2014 Ipsos MORI survey found that trust in the Church of England is lower than in any other national body asked about, other than national governments/parliaments/political parties. The 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey found that just 12.5% of British people think it is ‘very important to be a Christian’ to be ‘truly British’, just 12% think it is ‘fairly important’, 26.2% think it is ‘not very important’ and 45% think it is ‘not important at all’. This meant that Christianity was the least important of the nine factors that were asked about.”
The one glimmer of hope is that church schools of all denominations continue to prove enduringly popular, accredited with the surge in church attendance in the local referring congregation. However, given that despite this advantage young people emerge not just indifferent to but with such negative attitudes towards the church and the Christian faith, this may be more of a curse than a blessing.
Christianity in a broad cultural sense no longer dominates the English skyline, and its core events (and not necessarily the theological implications which different theologies drawn out from them) are accepted by only a quarter of the population. But this is good news compared to the ravaged landscape among the young. Not only do they not belong, believe or attend but they harbour some pretty ingrained negative attitudes towards religion in general:
“The reputation of religion amongst young people is actually more negative than neutral: 41% agree that “religion is more often the cause of evil in the world” and only 14% say it is a cause for good. When asked if they believe in God, only 25% say they do. 19% believe in some non-Godlike “spiritual greater power” and a further 38% believe in no God or spiritual power whatsoever.
Amongst believers, the most represented religions are the Church of England (13%), then Roman Catholicism (9%) and Islam (4%).”
Such a paucity of belief among young people, and a presumption of religion as negative and life destroying among close to half of them, unmasks just how Christianity has lost England. It is now fast becoming a country fundamentally hostile to Christian belief and Christian institutions.While the Church was an object of fun in the 1970s, when people could laugh at its idiosyncrasies because they knew it, visited it, were married and buried in it, now there is profound ignorance which has been overlaid with a pretty crass hostility.
Nor should we think that is the end of the problem. Among toddlers 10% are Muslim, twice the national average among the population as a whole. Thus the 20% of young people who are vaguely Christian faces a growing proportion who are Muslim, so that the percentage of Christians will just about match the number identifying as Christian in the next generation against a massive majority with hostility or indifference to all religions. Within a generation the English people will not only not be Christian in any sense whatsoever, but even among religious people they will not be a majority. This is just how serious the situation the Christian Churches face not tomorrow, but today.
The first thing to understanding a crisis is to acknowledge it. Sadly the churches themselves are pretty inept at this. As a former Anglican priest and a former Catholic priest, though as still an active member of the the latter, I sense that these two churches at least have had their head in the sand for far too long. Always there is a wringing of hands but then some attempt to say things aren’t as bad as they seem.
For example, the woman appointed to be the new bishop of Crediton made these comments upon her appointment in June 2015:
““We have seen a change generally in society,” she said. “Membership of anything, whether it’s a club, a political party or the Church, has changed. “There are people who engage with the Church, with God, but may not be regular attenders. At lunch today I saw some nurses parish nurses, they not only provide health advocacy but also, on invitation, pray with people. I think that there are people that encounter the Church and encounter God but maybe don’t turn up on a Sunday.” She added: “I think that the Church does need to take seriously the change in the Church’s membership and that is important but part of that is also to recognise that there are really good examples where the church engages with individuals that isn’t around the pews.””
The Church in England faces the greatest challenge to its existence and the clergy leadership are re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The two Churches have invested in initiative after initiative, each of which is supposed to have halted the decline and changed the trends. The Alpha Course , the Papal visits, the endless new catechetical programmes and investment in schools, ordination of women or the resurrection of the Tridentine Rite have all variously been hailed as the key to reversing the trend. Nothing has. The implications of these statistics is that all, without exception, have failed.
There is no silver bullet which will kill of the enemy of disbelief, no simple remedy. Thus accepting the scale of the problem means accepting the scale of the accumulated defeat. Christianity is imploding, perhaps on a scale too vast and too swift to fully comprehend, and nothing seems set to deliver the Church from this imperilling storm that threatens to bring down the whole edifice of what was once Christian England. Think of the scale of this: everything from a jury to the monarchy, from Shakespeare to Handal, from the rural landscape of village churches to Nativity plays, from human rights to the poems of Elliot, from graveyards to photo albums of family baptisms, all of it swept away, rendered meaningless, relics of a distant, primitive bygone age.